(Authors note: You will not find this article in Living Sanibel _ A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands because at the time of that publication (2010) there were no black bears found on Sanibel or Captiva. In a recent conversation I had with Frances Bailey about the newly discovered immature black bear, Mr. Bailey informed me that even as a child growing up on Sanibel there were no black bears living here. Historically, going back one-hundred and twenty years ago, and well before the arrival of agriculture to the islands, there possibly were black bears roaming the islands, but there are no known records of any. It only goes to prove the point that natural systems, from predators to prey, are always in a state of flux. If the bear gets a chance to read this article I would like to add the following: Welcome to Sanibel and please stay out of my garbage!)
Unlike the coyote, wild turkey, and white-tailed deer, the black bear has not done so well adapting to manmade changes in the environment. Secretive and with a low reproductive rate, the black bear struggles throughout its broad range to hang onto its remnant populations from the Midwest to Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 2,500 to 3,000 black bears are left in the state; some estimates indicate less than half of that. Because of the black bear’s reclusive nature and tendency to keep to dense forests with heavy understories, getting an accurate census of the largest land carnivore in Florida is a daunting task.
In Southwest Florida one of the best remaining intact habitats is the Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Collier County. The chance of actually seeing a black bear in Florida are only slightly better than seeing a panther. You might come across bear signs, however, such as bear scat, clawed trees, or tracks (its hind paws resemble a squat, oddly shaped human foot with claws). In the Sunshine State the bear does not hibernate, although it will sometimes remain dormant during periods of cold weather.
Bear hunting was legal in Florida until 1993 when the state imposed a moratorium that remains in place today. The bear is still hunted across the United States, where more than 18,000 bears are killed annually. Canada, which has an estimated black bear population approaching 400,000, also allows controlled hunts of this impressive predator. The largest black bear ever taken was in North Carolina in 1998. It weighed 880 pounds. The meat of black bear is said to taste similar to pork.
Human/bear encounters are rare and seldom fatal. A mother with cubs presents one of the most obvious dangers, but a young, healthy male is also of serious concern. Most attacks occur in places where bears have been fed, such as dump sites or campgrounds, and happen because the animal loses its fear of people. There have been only 52 documented cases of fatal black bear attacks in North America in the past 100 years, none of which was ever recorded in Florida.
The bear is an omnivore. More than 85 percent of its diet consists of herbs, grasses, fruit, acorns, nuts, and tubers. It is very fond of honey and bee larvae, a trait that often brings it into direct conflict with Florida’s beekeepers. It also eats termites, carpenter ants, and other colony-building insects. Less commonly, the black bear will take white-tailed deer and smaller mammals such as opossums and raccoons. It will readily feed on carrion and has been known to chase panthers off of a fresh kill.
In Florida the bear is at the top of the food chain. Only the cubs, which are born extremely small at 7.8 to 10.4 ounces, are vulnerable to predation. The majority of bear cub deaths do not come from other predators but from male black bears wanting to induce the female back into estrus. The female becomes reproductive between three and five years of age and rears two to three cubs every two years.
One of the leading causes of bear mortality in Florida are automobile collisions on remote highways. With its slow reproductive rate and need for large, unbroken tracts of forested lands, it is highly unlikely that the Florida black bear will be removed from its endangered status anytime soon.